Sunday 31 December 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 14 - Goodbye to 2017

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
It's the last day of 2017 and I usually do some kind of list for this post - but since I'm in the middle of an expedition here, I'm going to skip that. It wasn't my greatest year for travel, anyway - or a particularly good year for many people all over the world. So let's draw a veil over all that and concentrate on the here and now.
Here, this morning, was Mikkelsen Harbour, in an island to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. It's just a little dot of rock in the middle of a bay where huge glaciers meet the sea all around. Today the island was crusted with snow, the bare patches of rock covered in nesting Gentoo penguins (who were also busy providing their own encrustation - I haven't dwelt on this, but boy! Penguin colonies sure do stink). There were also a crabeater seal, an elephant seal and two Weddell seals who occasionally spoke to each other in their weird electronic-sounding wails and whistles.
The focal point of the island is a red-painted building called a refuge hut - though, given that the door is securely padlocked, it's moot how much refuge would be accessible. Ask the Argentinians about that - it's their flag painted on the outside.
There was also a photogenic wreck of a wooden boat, surrounded by whale bones - but what took everyone's attention was a penguin which had thought it was a good idea to climb up onto a small and very sculpted iceberg that was grounded on the beach - and then discovered that it couldn't get down again.
It dithered for ages, to our amusement, trying to summon up the courage to jump down from various points around the edge, and chickening out time after time until, finally, desperation triumphed.
Back at the ship, I hadn't even taken off my boots when whales were spotted nearby, so I dashed out on deck to watch as a couple of humpbacks circled the bay in a leisurely manner, occasionally lifting their tails (to a chorus of shutter-clicks) to dive. There was a classic seal on an ice floe too.
And then we glided away across a glassy sea to the site of our afternoon expedition, Cierva Cove where there's another (unmanned) Argentinian base but mainly a huge variety of icebergs. We got a bit distracted by a passing minke whale, and a snoozing leopard seal on a berg, but most of the time we were marvelling at the ice itself. 
Scallops, cracks, bubble grooves, caves, undercuts; luminous blue, dazzling white, dirty black, crystal clear; from clinking slush under the Zodiac to a towering mountain of an iceberg that dwarfed everything around it: all astonishing, and beautiful. And, amazingly, not even cold - though the temperature was meant to be zero, there was no wind, plus a bit of actual sunshine, and it felt warm enough to dispense with hat and gloves. So when Luke passed around a chunk of ice he'd fished out of the sea, I could feel the bubbles popping under my touch.
Unexpectedly (for us passengers) we then came across a Zodiac loaded with cheerful crew in Happy New Year hats handing out glasses of bubbles (the alcoholic sort this time) and biscuits and chocolate. Nice touch! And of course it had already been New Year's Day in New Zealand for quite some time already.

After the customary evening briefing - at the end of which someone asked about the weather forecast for our crossing of Drake Passage in a couple of days' time and got the answer "Doesn't matter: we're doing it anyway" - we headed off to dinner and found the restaurant beautifully decorated for NYE.
Balloons, streamers, glitter, hooters, hats and tiaras - and all the staff cheerfully in the mood too. The food was good (crab and Dover sole for me) and our dining companions from Canada and Australia good company. Conversation topics tonight included the Panama Canal, US customs horror stories, and bath robes. Oh, and humpback whales made a couple of appearances outside, too.

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